This past month marked both the birth date and death of a woman to whom most who have ever given a thought to contraception may owe a moment of homage. In September 1879, Margaret Sanger was born into an Irish working-class family, witnessing her mother's slow death, worn out after 18 pregnancies and 11 live births. While working as a nurse and midwife in the poorest neighborhoods of New York City in the years before World War I, Sanger saw women deprived of their health, sexuality and ability to care for their children that were already born. Contraceptive information at that time was suppressed by religious leaders, and laws passed prohibiting its commerce. The poor had no access to control their own bodies.
Sanger began a movement resulting in a slow but steady change in laws. It took until 1965 for the Supreme Court to strike down a Connecticut law that prohibited the use of contraception, even by married couples. In 1973, the Supreme Court found that there is a right to privacy which allows the decision to have an abortion to be between a woman and her physician
“One can imagine what Sanger's response to the current anti-choice lobby and congressional leadership that opposes abortion, sex education in schools, and federally funded contraceptive programs that would make abortion less necessary; that supports ownership of young women's bodies through parental-consent laws; that limits poor women's choices by denying Medicaid funding; and that holds hostage the entire U.S. billion-dollar debt to the United Nations in the hope of attaching an antiabortion rider. As in her day, the question seems to be less about what gets decided than who has the power to make the decision,” wondered Gloria Steinem more than a decade ago in her Time editorial on Margaret Sanger.
Thirteen years later the political battle continues to be waged over women’s bodies. Planned Parenthood clinics continue to be closed by those with the political objective of depriving women of their reproductive health - steadily eroding hard won freedoms. And the mentality that once flourished in the 19th century defines the political landscape today. This fall there will be yet another effort to take back reproductive rights from 21st century women with the 40 Days for Life campaign that targets Planned Parenthood clinics nationwide.
Let’s hope that in the near future we can reverse this backwards slide and continue to work toward improved access to health care for women.
By Jill, Web Correspondent, Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota Action Fund